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Players hope World Cup successes turn into greater support

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LYON, France — As the U.S. players celebrated their Women’s World Cup title by dancing on the field, a chant rose from the crowd in Lyon: “Equal pay! Equal pay!”

It was a fitting tribute after the team’s monthlong march to a fourth overall title in the sport’s premier tournament, where equity emerged as a main theme. The Americans were out front because of their lawsuit back home seeking to be paid as much as their counterparts on the men’s national team.

But it wasn’t just about pay equity at this World Cup. Players hope the attention they’ve received in France translates to greater support for the women’s game — and women in general.

“We, as all players, every player at the World Cup, put on the most incredible show that you could ever ask for. We can’t do anything more to impress more, to be better ambassadors, to take on more, to play better,” U.S. star Megan Rapinoe said. “It’s time to move that conversation to the next step.”

Even the hosts, eliminated by the United States in the quarterfinals, believed the focus on the tournament — with its record-breaking television ratings — could lead to a greater victory in terms of player development and resources.

“I think we achieved something and I’m proud to have shown France that football can also be played by women, and that’s a first victory. I think it will help for the future, but I can’t guarantee it,” French forward Eugenie Le Sommer said. “To have won over the public is a good thing, but we shouldn’t just be satisfied with that.”

For others, it’s just getting what they’ve been promised.

The Nigerian team staged a brief sit-in at its hotel after it was eliminated from the tournament because players had not been paid their bonuses and allowances. Some were owed money from as far back as 2016.

In soccer-crazy Argentina, the women’s team barely registers in the shadow of the men’s team. But the Argentinian women earned their first-ever World Cup point at the tournament with a scoreless draw with Japan in the group stage. Argentina had been outscored 33-2 in six previous games.

“For women’s football in Argentina it is great that we are starting to flourish,” Argentina coach Carlos Borrello said. “We are starting on our way and just starting to face up to these powerful forces in football.”

A movement for equality pushed Argentina’s soccer association into giving professional status to the national women’s league earlier this year. The fight for recognition has coincided with the country’s feminist movement taking to the streets with marches against violence and inequality.

Jamaica coach Hue Menzies was blunt about the impact he hoped the Reggae Girlz would have back home: “We want to make an impact socially.”

Like many teams in the region, Jamaica’s women have struggled for basic support, even equipment. There’s been little or no compensation for players. The Reggae Girlz even disbanded in 2008 but were revived five years ago with the help of Bob Marley’s daughter, Cedella, who became an ambassador for the team, tirelessly seeking sponsors and funding.

“We took this project not because of football but to change mindset of how we perceive women,” Menzies said. “The thing is we leave this program in a better situation. We will need to discuss with the federation about better preparations before a World Cup.”

FIFA itself came under fire during the tournament for the imbalance of prize money between the men’s and women’s World Cups.

The Americans earned $4 million for winning the World Cup — double the amount earned four years ago — as part of a $30 million prize pool. But that’s far less than the $38 million earned by France for lifting the men’s trophy last July in Moscow.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino promised to double the prize money to $60 million for the next Women’s World Cup in 2023, but it will still lag far behind the $440 million that will be paid out at the men’s 2022 tournament in Qatar.

FIFA’s cash reserves at the end of 2018 stood at $2.74 billion.

Soccer’s governing body also was criticized for scheduling the Women’s World Cup final on the same day as the Gold Cup final in the United States and the Copa America final in Brazil.

A day before the final, Rapinoe suggested FIFA doesn’t truly care about the women’s game.

“If you really care are you letting the gap grow? Are you scheduling three finals on the same day? No, you’re not. Are you letting federations have their teams play two games in the four years between each tournament? No, you’re not,” Rapinoe said. “That’s what I mean about the level of care, you need attention and detail and the best minds that we have in the women’s game, helping it grow every single day.”

Rapinoe was awed by the chants after the U.S. women won the championship match 2-0 over the Netherlands on Sunday.

“To have something like that, you know, obviously in the biggest match, that went so far beyond anything in sport, it was pretty incredible,” she said.

She is among twenty-eight members of the current player pool who filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles in March. The lawsuit alleges “institutionalized gender discrimination” that includes inequitable compensation when compared with their counterparts on the men’s national team.

The two sides have agreed to mediate the lawsuit now that the World Cup is over.

“At this moment of tremendous pride for America, the sad equation remains all too clear, and Americans won’t stand for it anymore,” said Molly Levinson, a spokeswoman for the players in their lawsuit. “These athletes generate more revenue and garner higher TV ratings but get paid less simply because they are women. It is time for the federation to correct this once and for all.”

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